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Investigative genetic genealogy: can collective privacy and solidarity help?
  1. Gabrielle Samuel
  1. Global Health and Social Medicine, King's College London Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Gabrielle Samuel, Global Health and Social Medicine, King's College London Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, London, London, UK; gabrielle.samuel{at}

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In their article, de Groot et al respond to a call to bring investigative genetic genealogy (IGG)i to the bioethical debate.1 They explore the extent to which the ethical approach used in the medical clinical genetics context can be helpful for conceptualising the ethical issues associated with IGG. They conclude that such an individual-based model, which revolves around notions of consent and privacy, has significant limitations in the IGG context. The authors call for a broader balancing of the benefits and risks of IGG, and the need for collective democratic engagement.

de Groot et al’s paper is a welcome addition to the literature—not only because it is an interesting and important analysis in its own right, but also because it foregrounds the importance of bringing forensic genetic debate to the bioethical audience. While forensic genetics (and genomics) has become increasingly widespread in the criminal justice system, bioethicists have often shied away from engaging with the ethical issues these practices raise.ii Perhaps this relates to the narrowing of bioethics debate over the past half a century to focus primarily on health-related issues,iii or to the techno-legal normative separation of DNA analysis in these two sectors, or perhaps both. Either way, as our desire for an ever-increasing collection and analysis of genetic data continues—and as we have seen in the IGG context—the lines between health, forensics and recreational associated DNA analysis and use are set to become …

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  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

  • IGG involves genealogists working on behalf of law enforcement searching specific recreational DNA databases with unknown origin DNA from either unidentified human remains (suicides, missing persons, war cases) or from a serious crime scene in an attempt to identify the victim or a suspected perpetrator. Searching is long-range with the potential to find second, third or more distant cousins. The genealogist puts the matches into clusters based on shared matches and builds out family trees to identify the most recent common ancestors and then traces the trees down to the present in an attempt to identify the victim or suspect of interest. As de Groot et al explain, since the 2018 high-profile arrest of the Golden State Killer in the USA, IGG has been increasingly used in a number of jurisdictions.

  • At the same time, there has been increasing attention from social scientists in this space.

  • This is now changing, with bioethics expanding into the public health arena, as well as the planetary health arena. For example, by considering how biobanks contribute to environmental and social harms (see: Samuel, Lucivero & Lucassen. 2021. ‘Sustainable biobanks: a case study for a green global bioethics’ Global Bioethics).

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